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Q + A with Suraj Yengde: Caste, Apartheid and a Fourth World Think Tank

Photo credit: Eugénie Baccot


Suraj Yengde is India’s first Dalit Ph.D. holder from an African university in the nation’s history. He is currently doing a post-doctoral fellowship at the Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School. He is an associate at the Department of African and African American Studies, and a research affiliate at the Lakshmi Mittal and Family South Asia Institute, Harvard University.

We sat down with Suraj to discuss caste, apartheid and the idea of a fourth world think tank.


Tell me about your background. I know that you were raised in India, educated in South Africa and you are now here at Harvard as a post-doc.

For my undergraduate degree, I studied law in a small town in Western India called Nanded. The Maharashtra state government sponsored me for a Master of Laws in Birmingham, England. After graduation, I got a job in London working in Southhall with the immigrant community across religion, caste and national lines. At Southhall, I was conducting research and doing community organizing work around the issue of caste discrimination in Britain. British parliament has a proposed bill about equality that covers caste-based discrimination. There is a huge friction between the people about whether or not caste discrimination should be part of the equality bill.

Since the very beginning, I was mindful of the fact that I did not want to be a product of the global north. When I went to the UN as a resident intern in Geneva, I was exposed to more than 120 nationalities, and I became friends with many of them. It was there that I first became concerned with the continent of Africa and the media portrayal of the continent. There were many civil wars happening in Africa and that began to feed into my own discourse. I saw the media fetishizing the whole continent, which is similar to what happens to South Asia. More importantly, I wanted to work with the communities in Africa and see how caste and caste discrimination function in African societies.


How well do you think caste is understood outside India?

The people who benefit from caste will never want to question or dismantle it, whereas the people who suffer the most have to bear the burden of this nasty form of discrimination. There have been Dalit movements within the diaspora dating back as far as the 1960s in England and elsewhere. Dalits organized themselves and raised their voices to express that they are still suffering under caste discrimination.

When people leave India and become de facto ambassadors, they promote India as a clichéd image of​ elephants on the street, yoga, meditation and other spiritual practices. ​In all of this, you don’t see caste being brought up and interrogated despite it being the fundamental aspect of everything that happens in India. Most of the time, caste is Orientalized and understood as India’s own creative flavor of dividing labor. It does not come across as what it truly is – as caste apartheid.


For apartheid, it’s natural to go to South Africa to look at the connections ​with South Asia. What did you find when you were there?​

In South Africa, there is still a lot discrimination in terms of economic accessibility. The freedom movement and voting aspect of democracy have improved, but the material life has not. Scholars like Keith Beavon and Alan Mabin describe this as neo-apartheid, where apartheid by decree is finished but​​ there is still pervasive segregation. Developing post-colonial countries like South Africa tend to have neighborhoods divided by huge walls with two or three layers of security – some of which are electrified. Often, people from predominately-white areas of town have no idea what is happening on the other side of those walls.

As a foreigner from India, I had access to a particular place in society inhabited by Indians in South Africa. Some South African Indians are bourgeois whereas others are working class Indians. I kind of had access to both lives. On one side of the fence, there was a whole new world with swimming pools and fancy parties. On the other side would be a township – ghettos – and I would relate, because I come from similar circumstances with a different name; similar to slums in India or the projects in the US. I related to the treatment that the black South Africans receive from white South Africans. Dalits also experience the inaccurate and vicious stereotypes of being lazy and not meritorious.


Given that you have experience of all of these different places, what conclusion do you draw?

When we try to understand global politics, we need to actually center and question what is happening globally. For example, Neo-liberalism has been central to the catastrophe as institutions like the World Bank and the IMF impose their exploitative policies, which is the reason that each country’s elite continue to retain power unabashed and with massive aggression. In addition, caste, like social laws, continue to dominate the societies through the affixed institutions of culture inbred into the society. Thus, structure and cultures dominate societies which have been conveniently upholded as sacrosanct in the western human rights regime, discounting the oppression it produces.


Are you saying there is institutional retention of the old structures? That there is no way you can see that they can easily be broken down because of the global institutions that impose policies and values?

India is a classic example. After Indian independence was bargained, the British left in 1947 and India had our first parliamentary elections in 1952. There was a huge gap of five years where we had to still figure out our nation. In those five years, the people with bargaining and purchasing power with the English were people who went to institutions like Oxford and Cambridge, who had gone to America. They were the people traditionally in the positions of power, such as the Brahmin community or the Baniya community in India. Gandhi and Nehru are the classic examples of Brahmin Baniya representation. When the British left, those elite Indian communities took the reins from them. That is why we still see unrest. In South Africa, the same thing happened.​ Many people think that the black South Africans took over but the economic policies have not reached the majority of the black South African communities.


How do you remove the structure that you describe?

This will perhaps be my next project. I want to gather the most marginalized communities, who have never had access to the precincts of power and have remained outcasts in any country. These communities exist in every country. Structures have maintained marginalization for thousands of years. The ruling classes will often give marginalized communities something along the lines of affirmative action and then believe that should suffice.

I am envisioning a fourth world, a think tank, a concept that goes beyond first, second and third world. This fourth world embraces the people who have never even participated in the project of third world because it reproduces a certain form of elitism. These marginalized folks would be invited to come and talk to each other and think of the ways that they want to live in the world, the way ​they want to see themselves. Currently, by virtue of non-accessibility and lack of access to resources, they cannot talk to each other. For example, conversations are extraordinarily rare between a person from an extremely rural area of South Africa and a Dalit or a Tribal from India.​ Perhaps if they start connecting, they could suggest ways to remove or change the structures.


Right now you are at Harvard, one of the world’s most elite institutions. Is there a conflict for you in that?

​I am less concerned with Harvard than I am with some of the professors that I engage with on a daily basis. I came here for the Comaroffs, Cornel West, Skip Gates, Bill Wilson, Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and Lani Guinier. Their love to humanity is a true testament of hope. They have truly worked with the community, and their scholarship is cutting edge. When I speak with these professors, we are actually not in that bubble. However, I do recognize that there is privilege to this position. I want to use this privileged position and go back into the community. I would like to tell people about what it is like to be at Harvard and boost their confidence to apply with the hope that the next generation that comes to Harvard will be socially conscious, practically informed, and particularly armed with not only scholarship but a desire to upend the structures that they have struggled with.


What are you working on now?​

By the next year I plan to finish a book project that I am currently working on entitled “Caste Matters,” which is an analysis of why caste should matter in the sub-continent and beyond. It will give a discourse on what a Dalit life is from a young Dalit’s perspective.

I have also started the Ambedkar Lecture Series, a monthly lecture series at Harvard where we invite scholars and activists to speak from across the region about various issues of interest. It is co-organized and co-sponsored by a local group called the Boston Study Group. Last March, Mittal Institute fellow Raile Rocky Ziipao spoke about Tribes and infrastructure development. Additionally, I have built an allyship with the Black Lives Matter movement – particularly with black feminists, as well as the Roma community. We are trying to put these various movements in contact with each other through these lectures as well as a Human Rights Conference.  


This interview has been edited for length and clarity. It was taken in March 2018 when Suraj was a Nonresident fellow at the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute, Hutchins Center, Harvard.

Q + A: Tracing the Tracks of Diaspora Hinduism


Vineeta Sinha conducts her research along the train tracks in Singapore.



Vineeta Sinha is the Department Head of the South Asian Studies Programme & the Department of Sociology, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the National University of Singapore. She is currently a research affiliate at The Mittal Institute and is examining the culture and traditions of Diaspora Hindus in Singapore and Malaysia.   

Tell me about your new book that you have been researching while you are here.

The title of the book is Temple Tracks, which has been gifted by my son Ashish Ravinran, who is a filmmaker currently based in New York. The book draws inspiration from the field of Anthrohistory, and is based on ethnographic and archival research I have been conducting on Diaspora Hindus for many years. One of my principle interests has focused on the religious practices of Hindus in Singapore and Malaysia and the importation of festivals, deities, and rituals from rural Tamil Nadu in India into British Malaya.

In Temple Tracks, I return to theorize the practice of building temples and shrines for various Hindu deities along the railway tracks in Singapore and Malaysia. I began actively working on this topic around January 2011. By this time, it had been announced that the Singapore stretch of the Malayan railway tracks that had existed on the island since 1932 was going to be removed by June 2011. Ironically, it was in witnessing the removal of the tracks by South Asian labor in contemporary Singapore, that I was inspired to think about the laying of the same across the Malayan landscape by their ancestors, starting in the 1880s.

Temple Tracks carries several intersecting narratives: one, the history of railway construction in British Malaya; two, the history of Indian labor migration into Malaya; three, the history of religion-making in Malaya; and finally, my own ethnographic journey as a researcher, which tries to pull together these different strands. My argument is that paying attention to these overlapping strands allows a different retelling of the history of the railways, Indian labor and temple building in Malaysia and Singapore.

As I write this book, I am reflecting on how to present the material, because, on one hand, the project stands on a firm intellectual scholarly ground, addressing fundamental categories like labor, religion and technology and their interface — through a focus on the history of the railways. On the other hand, I have a sense that the book will have a traction with railway enthusiasts outside academia — whom I have encountered and engaged in the course of my research. So, I am trying to build this recognition into the book’s conceptualization, given its potential appeal to multiple audiences.


Can you share more about the book that you wrote that was a part of the 50-volume series?

The Institute of Policy Studies commissioned a 50-volume series to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. In some ways, this was not a new book for me to write, because I have been working on the Singaporean Indian community for almost two decades. However, it was both a novel and challenging project in the sense that I had to write about the history of the Indian community in the port city-state of Singapore in a short 100-page monograph for a non-academic audience. Above all, I wanted to convey the internal diversity and complexity of the small Indian community in Singapore without presenting it in monolithic and homogenized terms.


Can you talk about how you first started your studies on Diaspora Hinduism?

I was born in India in the North East Indian state of Bihar. My father was an academic and practitioner in the field of agricultural and communication studies. As a young child, the family traveled all over India with him. At the age of 12, we moved to Singapore when my father took up a position here.

At the National University of Singapore, I majored in sociology and anthropology. As an undergraduate, I was fortunate to meet some of the most inspiring teachers at the Department of Sociology — who sparked an intellectual interest in religion and Hinduism. The Hinduism that I confronted in Singapore was actually very different from my personal experience of everyday Hinduism. The variety of Hinduism I witnessed was South Indian Hinduism — primarily from Tamil Nadu. The temples, the rituals, the deities and the festivals were all unfamiliar to me. Yet when I began to be interested in studying Hinduism, I found myself in a strange situation. From the outside, people assumed that I was studying my own community. But actually, it was all very novel to me because I did not even understand the Tamil language at the time — and I was very much an outsider.


Who are some of the other academics who inspire you?

That’s a long list: M.N. Srinivas, Syed Hussein Alatas, Veena Das, Lynn McDonald, Geoffrey Benjamin, Dorothy Smith, Benoy Kumar Sarkar, Tzvetan Todorov, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Sidney Mintz, Harriet Martineau, Pandita Ramabai, and Florence Nightingale, just to name a few.

In recent years, Sunil Amrith has been a huge influence and inspiration given his towering role in theorizing Southeast Asian migration histories. His book Crossing the Bay of Bengal has been fundamental in producing different ways of thinking about mobility and flows of labor, ideas and material objects. I have also been very captivated by the writings of Michel de Certeau and Henri Lefebvre and their work on everyday life. In all the work that I have done so far — both by way of research and teaching — I have prioritized everyday perspectives, a theme that continues in Temple Tracks.

As part of her work for her upcoming book Train Tracks, Sinha looked at religious shrines and buildings along 80-year old tracks.



In particular, Dorothy Smith has been decisive in my own journey as a woman academic. She has been an important resource and influence for woman scholars who continue to struggle to discover a language with which to talk about and make sense of their experiences in the workplace. Her theoretical and methodological contributions — standpoint theory and institutional ethnography — strongly resonate with me.


I can see that as a theme in your work, as you also wrote about women’s role in building institutions in Singapore.

I am currently working on a book project with my colleague Prof. Lily Kong of the Singapore Management University. For this project, we are looking at women’s presence in institutions of higher learning in Singapore. We have identified 10 female academics — in leadership positions — in the social sciences, arts and humanities and STEM disciplines. We have conducted in-depth interviews with them with a view to mapping their everyday lives as academic in institutional settings. We hope to complete the book soon.


What do you see as a path forward for female academics?

It is a struggle. It was a struggle for Dorothy Smith and it remains a struggle for all of us today. Though expressed in different modes, the problems have not gone away.

I admit that in the past I was hesitant to be placed in senior level administrative positions. In fact, many women academics opt out of taking admin leadership roles, partly due to the deep entrenchment of academic institutions in patriarchal norms. But since I have had the opportunity to be head of two departments at NUS, I have learned that women’s presence in leadership positions does matter – both academic and administrative – especially in areas where policies are debated and made.

Sitting on recruitment and reviewing committees and on management boards, I have witnessed that even my lone presence as a woman tempers the tone of the discussion and prevents loaded and blatantly sexist and even racist questions to be raised — even if it is just for political correctness. But the effect is more important in these instances. In these positions, I have had opportunities to raise critical issues, many of which I am convinced would not have surfaced otherwise. I have seen the value that even one person who thinks against the grain can bring to the discussion and this can make a difference.

While I remain skeptical of all institutions, I am encouraged enough to now say that it is indeed essential for women academics to occupy supervisory, managerial and administrative roles in universities. I have heard from junior women faculty and women graduate students how empowering it is for them to see women in leadership positions, not to mention the mentoring and role-model opportunities they see in this. I am inclined to agree with them. It is clear that the situation is not self-correcting and warrants sustained intervention at all levels.  



This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

-Amy Johnson